The Columbia Companion to
Modern East Asian Literature

Edited by Joshua Mostow; Associate Editors: Kirk A. Denton, Bruce Fulton, Sharalyn Orbaugh

Reviewed by Margaret Hillenbrand

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April 2004)

Joshua Mostow, ed. The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 803 pp. US $55.00, ISBN: 0-231-11314-5 (cloth)

Countless studies of modern European fiction, poetry, and drama have shown us some of the revelations that await discovery at the interface between area studies and literature. When it comes to forging bonds, as the saying goes, “nothing propinks like propinquity”; and many of the most rewarding insights into national literatures emerge when we appraise them alongside their near neighbors. These appraisals, whether they take the form of the panoptic regional survey or close text to text comparison, are sustained by real-life literary networks, documented paths of influence, shared cultural traditions, similar world-pictures, and sometimes interlocking politico-economic systems. The bigger picture illuminates, allowing us to compare notes, corroborate hunches, and cross-examine received truths about the supposed “uniqueness” of our specialty. Indeed, the regionalist approach to literary studies can play a salutary role in managing some of the coercive tendencies harbored within the very construct of “national literatures”—particularly at a time when ethnonationalisms are on the rise and cultural producers often play to their agenda.

Literary studies in the field of modern East Asia have a reputation for resisting the kind of inclusionary take implied within this notion of regionalism. Until quite recently, in fact, there has been a dearth of studies addressing modern literary practice across the region—a dearth which might strike colleagues in other areas of the humanities as inexplicable. At the very least, it is a missed chance that scholars who work the over-tilled field of Balzac, Tolstoy, and the evolution of the modern European novel would kill for. Yet at the same time, it would certainly be an error for any such outsider to assume from this that East Asian literatures are studied exclusively inside narrow territorial blocs, still less that the field is parochial or retrogressive. Modern Chinese literary studies provide a useful case in point. As war, politics, and people on the move have created Chinese societies across the globe, what might once have been called a Sinophone literature has emerged in direct tandem: fiction, poetry, and drama written in Chinese across the Chinese-speaking world by authors resident in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, North America, Western Europe, and wherever the diaspora have settled. And in much the same way as the notion of “literature in English” has routed the old warhorse of “English literature,” it has long been axiomatic in Chinese literary studies for journals, edited volumes, and monographs to engage with “literature in Chinese” in all its guises and locales. Inter-regional comparativism of different kinds also thrives in Chinese literary studies. Old-school comparative literature, of the kind which compares Guo Moruo with Goethe, still holds tight to its niche; and there can be little disputing the fact that the theory revolution has taken Chinese literary studies by storm—however one may feel about the power relationship implied within the standard paradigm of Western theory/Chinese text. Interdisciplinarity is also increasingly in vogue, as Chinese literary studies talk to Chinese history, politics, and philosophy in ways that would probably have been unthinkable twenty years ago.

Yet despite these ever-increasing signs of dialogue, interchange, and syncretism, it remains the case that Chinese literary studies engage in only patchy and occasional ways with their closest counterparts in East Asia. And, almost inevitably, the same is true in reverse, as scholars of modern Japanese and Korean literature teach in next door classrooms, serve on the same faculties, and even attend identical conferences (though usually different panels), but seldom produce research that is truly interactive. Literary studies in the modern Middle East offer a revealing analogue to this anomaly. Modern literature in Arabic, which traverses territories as wide as its Chinese counterpart, has been the subject of sustained academic inquiry for several decades; scholars both local and foreign have pursued projects of literary comparativism between Arabic texts and their distant cultural Others; and interdisciplinarity is as much a buzzword here as in other academic communities. Yet attempts to read modern Middle Eastern writing—Arabic, Persian and Turkish—have been as slow to materialize as panoramic overviews of literary East Asia. And just as in the case of East Asia, the argument for undertaking regionalist study in modern Middle Eastern literatures is compelling on many counts, as shared heritages, shared influences, and shared experiences in the modern era have combined to create a rich intertext of cognate writings. Up to a point, this analogous situation allows us to speculate cross-culturally on some of the reasons why literary studies in East Asia might be so interactive in some directions but not in others (the intersection between troubled modern histories, exceptionally difficult languages, and territorially-minded scholars is the explanation that instantly springs to mind). Ultimately, however, these similarities do more to depress than hearten. And at a time when departments of Asian studies remain marginalized or are even under threat (at least in the country where this reviewer is based), one can only hope that it will not be crude issues of Realpolitik that finally convince us of the need for a more committed solidarity.

The extraordinary value of The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature lies in the determination and comprehensiveness of its effort to bring such a solidarity into being. In this sense, the very term “companion”—with its intimations of a handbook or reference work which accompanies the novice reader along an already well-trodden path—is perhaps something of a misnomer here. Certainly, for the seasoned scholar of modern Korean fiction there are unlikely to be epiphanies on every page; but in the opportunity that Companion affords him or her to contrast the songjang sosol (the Korean narrative of formation) with the shi-shôsetsu (the Japanese I-novel), or to compare Taiwan’s modernist/nativist debate with the homegrown Korean contest between pure literature and the literature of engagement inside the pages of a single volume, the book is more of a trailblazer than a homely guide. In fact, arresting points of contact and comparison occur every few pages in Companion, triggering chains of connection which are less unexpected than at least halfway predictable. And it is precisely the discovery of connections of this kind that will prompt readers, teachers, and researchers to move beyond their comfort zones and explore the literatures that border those zones so closely in time, space, and imaginative inspiration.

These encouragements to solidarity proceed in a manner that is well-plotted and rigorous. Both the volume proper, and the regional sections contained within it, begin with compact introductory essays written by the four principal editors together with Marvin Marcus, Charles Laughlin, Michel Hockx, Yingjin Zhang, and Helen H. Koh. These opening pieces arrange what is potentially an unwieldy mass of material around the keywords of literature, modernity, and nation, and they launch the volume in confident style. Naturally emphases differ, but the decision to use this cluster of concepts works well – both as an organizational strategy, and as a means through which to impose some clarity of definition upon terms that are often left disingenuously amorphous. These introductory essays are, quite properly, granted more latitude of space than the more specific pieces that follow; but here, as elsewhere in the volume, the short essay format proves a boon to writer and reader alike. Constraints of space force an economy of thought and a considered use of detail that allow essays seldom stretching beyond ten pages to elaborate the relationship between literature, modernity, and nation in East Asia in ways that are energetic and accessible whilst somehow managing to avoid the tone of an undergraduate primer or a layperson’s manual.

This is not to say that undergraduates and laypeople should forswear this book—quite the opposite. The standard introductory fare—about the creation of a “modern language for literature” (genbun’itchi, baihua, and hangul) , and the emergence of a modern literary “grandfather” (Futabatei Shimei, Lu Xun, and Yi Kwangsu), who then swiftly obliges the “new modern nation” by producing its so-called “first modern novel/short story” (Ukigumo, “Kuangren riji”, and Mujong)—is certainly here in abundance. But the point is rather that the editors have chosen to leaven this fare with more recent interventions about the role that gender, literary communities, and the canon play in the production, organization, and consumption of literature. These interventions are now fully naturalized within our field, and form the stuff of numerous scholarly articles and dedicated monographs. Yet it remains true that before the advent of the Companion, the library browser/intellectual tourist/brand-new student who wished to learn about East Asian literature would probably have found him/herself directed to Leonard S.Klein’s Far Eastern Literatures in the 20th Century, published in 1986. This earlier compendium is a worthy and perceptive guide. But for all its virtues, it cannot discuss Kitchin (Kitchen, 1987) by Yoshimoto Banana—a text which more than any other has fuelled intense interest in Japanese literature across the world—for the simple reason that her crowd-pleasing novella about love and katsudon in consumer Tokyo had not yet been written. And by the same token, the issues of androgyny, transsexuality, and the post-family that the text explores—together with the furore between the proponents of jun bungaku (pure literature) and taishû bungaku (popular literature) that it stirred up—belong to the brave new world of contemporary Japanese culture. All of which is, of course, a world away from the exclusively highbrow authors who dictate the agenda of Klein’s earlier study.

In the introductory sections of the Companion, on the other hand, this new culture is interpreted with a sophistication that would do any scholar in the contemporary humanities proud. And this sophistication holds true for the Chinese and Korean sections, too, which offer equally telling accounts of the transformations that are drawing these fields into an ever more international ambit. This is an obvious point, perhaps; but a volume such as this is a flagship of sorts for our field—or at the very least the first port of call for the uninitiated—and it is not only gratifying to find that its linchpin introductory essays present an urbane face to the world, but essential to the well-being and reputation of this field. The literatures we study are still deemed “minority” in some quarters. And as Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd have shown, those who do the sidelining typically argue that “the objective grounds for marginalization can be read in the inadequacy or underdevelopment of ‘minority’ work” and in the absence of a mature critical apparatus.[1] Visitors to the Companion will be disabused of this view, if indeed they hold it, within a few short pages. That the contributors manage to accomplish this without retreating into the easy option of theoretical overkill is all the more to their credit.

The 120-odd short essays on authors, works, and schools that comprise the rest of the book flesh out these introductory sections in meticulous and engaging ways. Up to a point, there are certain gradations in quality, with some contributors proving more adept than others at balancing the twin demands of information and interpretation. After all, the articles must blend biography, bibliography, textual summary, and exegesis within the unforgiving format of the brief essay—a task which has the potential to defeat youth and experience in equal measure. Yet the vast majority of contributors, whether established scholars or otherwise, succeed in packaging their learning in ways that register appealingly with readers on many levels. These essays contextualize backwards and forwards, condense the core data elegantly, and are full of the kind of unexpected aperçus that bring a writer, text, or literary moment to life. On many occasions, they reach right to the core of their topic, and all leave the reader with an agreeable sense of having had his or her knowledge enriched, refreshed, or consolidated. Some of the best pieces seize the opportunity presented by the short essay form, with its invitation to pithiness, to produce accounts which craft two or three concepts into an interpretive structure that manages to capture the creative drive of a long individual career. Christopher Bolton’s essay on Abe Kôbô is a prime example. Others—such as Amy Dooling’s piece on the origins of Chinese women’s writing—show how an entire field is being re-written, and dissect canonical bias while resisting rhetoric. Others still—and here Bruce Fulton’s essay on Cho Sehui’s linked-story novel The Dwarf (1978) is a case in point—skillfully reveal how a single text can commit an epoch to narrative, and seize the imagination of countless people in the process.

Just as enjoyable are those extended passages within the volume where good editing and good scholarship combine to tap a rich literary seam. A useful example of this can be found in the cluster of essays that explore China’s wenhua re (culture fever) of the 1980s. Here the essay form enables a few brief pages to yield a wealth of detail and a broad range of opinion, which a sharp editorial eye has shorn of the inevitable repetitions. This series of essays manages to interlock without overlapping: literary texts and figures are regularly cross-referenced, yet a sense of the quickfire procession of new schools and philosophies is maintained. The result, if the essays are read consecutively, is a modulated and multi-generic take on one of the most vibrant outpourings of cultural energy seen anywhere in the world in recent years. More than anything else, perhaps, the essays succeed in imparting a sense of the momentum that gathered force during those years, a momentum that looks all the livelier for being appraised from different angles. After all, this period is no stranger to critical analysis, as the authoritative single-authored surveys published in recent years by scholars such as Jing Wang and Xudong Zhang show. What the Companion offers is a rare opportunity to sample, in a style that is both learned and digestible, the condensed wisdom of a good number of the most noted commentators and translators currently working on this key period in China’s literary history.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the coherence of all these essays, both as discrete pieces and as components of a broader collective, owes its first debt to the judgment exercised by the regional editors (Sharalyn Orbaugh, Kirk Denton, and Bruce Fulton) over the impossibly vexed issues of selection and exclusion that will always dominate a project of this kind. How to stay true to the classics without being dubbed old-school; how to institutionalize the contemporary without inadvertently pushing for a new canon (especially when reference works of this kind are the stock-in-trade of canon-makers); how to keep abreast of critical vogue whilst not being enslaved to it; how to apportion precious space between the genre demands of poetry, drama, and prose; how to decide when text counts more than writer, or writer more than text; how to tread the line between political correctness and tokenism; how to handle theory; and—above all—how to come up with three or four dozen headings that somehow encapsulate your field in all its breadth and depth: these, one imagines, are just a few of the dilemmas that, on the whole, find so satisfying a resolution in the Companion.

Just as praiseworthy is the way that Orbaugh, Denton, and Fulton have used their editorial choices to provide hard testimony of the shared literary space between Japan, China, and Korea that general editor Joshua Mostow suggests to the reader in his perceptive opening essay “Modern Literature in East Asia: An Overview”. Exemplary here is Mostow’s identification of the five underlying parallels that have linked the literary cultures of Japan, China, and Korea since 1950. As he puts it, these points of commonality are:

the preponderance of women writers; the insistent exploration of sexuality and eroticism . . . often of the most transgressive sort; formal experimentation in metafiction and postmodern narrative techniques such as magical realism; a general blurring of the distinction between literature and pop culture, fueled by relentless commodification and globalization; and finally a focusing on the diasporic experience. (p. 17)

What follows is a pleasurable reading experience in which these five leitmotifs—familiar to readers of post-war literature across the globe – are allowed to play themselves out in the constantly changing contexts of East Asia. Thus Mark Leenhouts’ essay on the xungenpai (root-seekers) gives us magical realism à la mystic hinterland worlds of Han Shaogong, Zheng Wanlong, and Zhaxi Dawa; whereas Matthew Strecher’s piece on Murakami Haruki reveals that this selfsame technique can be just as trenchant a critique of centralized authority inside an urban world of fast food, technocracy, and pinball machines. Diaspora is described in many guises too, from the testimony of the zainichi Kankokujin (Koreans settled in Japan) to the Japanese women writers whose tales of life abroad question the baseline assumptions of Japan’s nationhood with equal stringency; and from Bei Dao, Gu Cheng and China’s post-Tiananmen dissident exodus to the émigré army writers who accompanied the KMT decampment to Taiwan and wrote a doleful literature of nostalgia. Companion is just as lucid on the generation of Taiwan modernists who followed them, for whom China was often less a lived experience than a ghostworld, and on the extended phenomenon of Chinese liuxuesheng wenxue (literature of students abroad), which stretches from Yu Dafu’s Japan to Lao She’s London to Bai Xianyong’s Chicago and New York.

Inevitably, some editorial decisions will sit easier with some readers than with others. On a practical note, readers across the board may wish that Denton’s policy of devising succinct thematic titles for the Chinese essays had been adopted throughout the book. Other reservations might well pertain to issues of legitimacy, genre, or nation. Thus the purist may balk at the inclusion of San Mao and Qiong Yao, just as the specialist on children’s literature may bemoan the lack of a piece on Miyazawa Kenji, and Korean specialists may feel that their subject has been slightly shortchanged on space altogether. Yet perhaps the standard gripe in volumes of this kind will always be the omission, or downplaying, of writers and themes that specific readers—with their equally specific tastes—regard as paramount. On the Japanese side, for example, I personally would have liked to see a much longer piece on Nakagami Kenji, articles of any length on Nosaka Akiyuki and Yoshiyuki Junnosuke, and an essay each on Kôno Taeko and Tomioka Taeko.Quite apart from his literary stature, Nakagami’s status as Japan’s most lauded burakumin (hereditary outcast) writer should surely have been sufficient to ensure him more than a paltry two pages. Nosaka, meanwhile, deserves inclusion for his acute meditations on WWII, for his contributions to the shin-gesaku (new frivolous writing) genre, and for the innovative ways in which his fiction often interrupts standard Japanese with earthy Osaka dialect. And surely Yoshiyuki is worth at least a mention as Nagai Kafû’s postwar heir-apparent in the chronicling of the floating world. As for the female authors, cramming Kôno and Tomioka into an essay entitled “The 1960s and 1970s Boom in Women’s Writing” alongside four other luminaries, although expedient in terms of space, seems depressingly similar to the typecasting of female texts as joryû bungaku (women’s literature) that is so properly critiqued in Orbaugh’s introduction. But more importantly, all of the writers cited in this paragraph have created radical new possibilities for the representation of sexuality in Japanese literature; and their lack of a more prominent presence in Companion reflects one of the latter’s few weaknesses. The repudiation of “normative” sexual behaviour is a prime signature of modern and contemporary Japanese writing, a marker of counter-culturalism, ethical experimentation, and resistance to the lingering ideologies of the kazoku kokka (family state). And although the absolute importance of sexuality as a theme is made explicit in the introductory section, I felt that the Japanese essays as a whole did not give this topos the attention it requires.

Another personal grouse is that, at eight articles out of a total of forty-six on the Chinese side, the literatures of Taiwan and Hong Kong are disappointingly under-represented. True, glancing reference is made to both in a number of other thematically-driven essays, for example Taiwan’s queer fiction and Hong Kong’s diasporic writing. Yet whereas the territory of the mainland is mapped with admirable evenness and sensitivity to the new, the literary landscape of Taiwan and Hong Kong tends to emerge along rather more sporadic and well-worn outlines—and although these are expertly treated by contributors, important tracts of lesser-known ground are left in the dark. There is a good deal more to modern Taiwan fiction than the much-anthologized products of the modernist-nativist debate and the oeuvre of the Zhu sisters. As Denton rightly points out early on, “in its heterogeneity Taiwan literature has perhaps never been healthier.” Yet demands of space seem to have dictated that Taiwan’s political writing, feminist texts, science fiction, aboriginal literature, and dahe xiaoshuo (“great-river fiction”—historical epics or sagas of a kind very similar to Korea’s taeha sosul) should be glossed rather than more systematically explored. Just as importantly, key pre-war developments in the evolution of Taiwan’s modern literature, such as the xin wenxue yundong (new literature movement) that began in the 1920s and the kôminka (imperialized) literature written in Japanese during the high tide of the imperialization movement, certainly deserve far lengthier treatment.

This reference to the kôminka writings brings me to one further point. Perhaps one of the most pertinent reasons why these particular texts merit a closer look in Companion is because they are, through their hybrid nature, emblematically “East Asian” in precisely the sense that chief editor Joshua Mostow describes at the beginning of the book. As he puts it:

We have constantly kept an eye open to those writers, works, and movements that transcend national boundaries. This includes … Chinese authors who lived and wrote in Japan; Japanese authors who wrote in classical Chinese; and Korean authors who write in Japanese, whether under the colonial occupation or because they are now resident in Japan. (p. 5)

By and large, both editors and contributors deliver on this promise, and stay keenly alert to what Mostow calls the “dynamic interplay” that has obtained between the literary cultures of Japan, China, and Korea in modern times. The omission of an essay on kôminka literature is a relatively rare example of a missed opportunity in this regard. An even better solution might have been to commission an essay on the literatures of Japan’s former colonies which takes its cue from the groundbreaking comparative work that scholars such as Ozaki Hotsuki and Faye Kleeman have undertaken in recent years. Positioned next to Orbaugh’s introductory piece on “Nation and Nationalism,” such an essay could have continued her stimulating account by drawing on the experiences of Nipponization suffered by cultural producers in Korea and Taiwan. In a similar vein, perhaps a future edition of Companion might include a piece on the role early twentieth-century Japan played both as a study destination for intellectuals throughout East Asia, and as the chief conduit through which many texts of Western literature reached writers in Korea, China, and Taiwan. A further intra-regional lacuna is the lack of a dedicated essay on the Japanese Shinkankakuha (New Sensationalists), whose experiments with narrative form later inspired China’s Xin ganjue pai (New Sensationists). Although the Shinkankakuha are cited en passant in a piece on Kawabata Yasunari, the inclusion of an essay of their own might have drawn the eye more compelling to the literary lineage that these two influential schools share.

Ultimately, however, such suggestions remain personal in nature, and no doubt other readers might well have taken vehement exception if the book had been designed more closely to this reviewer’s tastes. Indeed, reading over the previous sentences I am conscious of a certain churlishness on my part, particularly given the remarkable extent to which impartiality has been preserved across the spectrum. After all, it would be literally impossible to please everyone all the time in a book of this kind. Yet at the same time, and at the risk of sounding contradictory, it is difficult to see who could fail to find great pleasure in this publication. This point becomes clearer when we pause for a moment to consider the sheer range of Companion’s potential readership. For any outsider to the field of East Asian literatures, it will function as both a guide and an effective spur to further study. For students enrolled in undergraduate courses on East Asian literatures across the world, the appearance of a reference work which educates as much as it informs is an event that needs little heralding. Graduate students will welcome its coverage of their specific fields of interest, as well as the opportunity to step over the fence onto nearby ground and thereby orientate themselves within the wider domain of East Asian literary practice. And for scholars in any branch of the field, the Companion will become an invaluable reference guide for teaching, an inspiration for new kinds of research, and a daily reminder of the many reasons why we chose to study the literatures of East Asia in the first place.

[1] Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd, “Introduction: Towards a Theory of Minority Discourse,” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring, 1987), 10.

Margaret Hillenbrand
SOAS, University of London